Interlude 3 – Downpour

Divine intervention was a rare thing. For good reason, or so the gods would say. The divine did not normally interfere with the mortal for a number of reasons.

Some would say it was to avoid coddling the mortal, to let them live their lives without a heavenly hand holding them down. Others would say there was no reason for a god to interfere, because why should they care for mortal affairs? And then there was the simplest logic of them all: that if a god were allowed to intervene, to show favor where it was unwarranted, then any god could do the same. And when a full third of the Estian gods were intrinsically tied to death in its myriad forms, allowing them to poke at mortals whenever they felt like it seemed like a terrible decision.

So most gods needed some type of excuse to get involved, if they really wanted to. Some of these excuses could be remarkably flimsy–such as exiling a hero because a death god was granting him powers, as though that wasn’t how most paladins and warlocks worked to begin with–but there were inevitably consequences if the excuse wasn’t sound enough. A curse widespread enough to cover a nation could draw divine eyes–or eye, in this case–and the prayers of His followers could earn a god’s sympathy, but a miracle could not be just given. 

As such, mortals were needed to bridge the gap. Storm clouds could gather, but for a miracle to occur, an arrow had to pierce the heavens.

And once it did, the sky split, and the entire country felt the pouring rain.

Communicating to a bunch of birds and snakes was tricky as a regular human being. Trying to do so as some kind of horrible chimera creature was…somehow easier?

Noriko didn’t quite get it, but she was adjusting to her situation about as well as she could under the circumstances. She considered herself a pretty adaptable person, and she already knew it was a countrywide animal-transformation curse afflicting everyone, so there wasn’t that confusion that most of the other people in Fujimi had to deal with.

Which led to her pretty much taking charge, by virtue of also being the biggest creature there. It was somewhat tricky conveying her orders to the samurai-turned-pheasants and scribes-turned-snakes, but she gave it her best shot, and they responded well enough. Probably because one of the pheasants–who she was pretty sure was Bashy based on the mustache-esque markings on his beak–seemed to vouch for her, and the rest were professional enough to hop to it. 

So as the rain started falling above them–probably a good sign, especially since it was soon followed by the sight of what was clearly Misha slamming that leviathan straight into the forest–Noriko made everyone useful in gathering up the seahorses the enemy samurai had turned into. Aside from the one she killed; that body was still lying there, fully human.

What that meant, she wasn’t sure, but she did know that pheasants and snakes could definitely beat seahorses in a fight.

Heck, even Kawajiri, as small as he was, could beat up these seahorses. Which wasn’t too impressive, considering they were sea creatures on land and kinda pathetic in general, but he could do it. Probably. 

Though huh, now that she thought about him, she realized that the once unnoticeable snake was a decent weight on her head now. And of course he was doing his best to pose proudly above her. Hm…would anyone notice if she shook her head to toss him on the ground? 

…Better not. Even if the scribes and samurai were busy, it probably wouldn’t look too good if she dumped their snakey shogun on the ground. Even if he was getting heavier. A lot heavier, actually, and then the option was taken out of her hands as he suddenly became heavy enough to fall right off her head.

He twisted around on the ground and gave her an irritated hiss– “Damn it Masaki, you need to keep steady!”

She blinked. “…Eh? Ah, hold on, you can–Hold on, this gal can speak??”

The others were staring at the two of them in confusion, before Bashy cleared his birdy throat. “Lord Shogun, her name is Noriko.”

“What? No, this lord swears she said it was Masa…Masa-something. He distinctly remembers it being something to that effect,” Kawajiri mumbled, rubbing his chin with a tiny hand that definitely wasn’t there a second ago.

Noriko blinked, staring as the serpent started to shift as the rain fell. The process didn’t seem painful, or even that noticeable to the serpentine shogun, who was starting to change further. Slowly, but surely, with his upper body changing first, gradually turning from the front half of a snake into the…surprisingly well-built body of Shogun Kawajiri. Like, wow.

“Was Kawajiri always that ripped?” Noriko mumbled, giving a glance at Bashy, who was also looking bigger. His feathered mustache had reappeared, forming from the markings on his still-present beak, and the feathers adorning his body were starting to recede into his scales as he started to stand taller.

“This official has never seen the Shogun unclothed, so he wouldn’t know,” Bashy answered, regarding her in turn…then studiously averted his gaze, “He would also suggest you, ah…find some cover, Lady Noriko.”

Noriko blinked again, then glanced down at herself. She was still pretty fur-covered, though the rain was matting it down, and she could see her claws turning back to fingers. She could feel a lot of changes, now that she was actually paying attention, and it wasn’t long before she was back to standing on two feet, flexing her hands and checking her still changing body. 

It was a slow and gradual return, but she could feel herself turning back, and she could see the scribes and samurai of Fujimi starting to celebrate their own changes, even as some hurried to start binding up the seahorses, who seemed to be turning back even slower. 

She let out a small chuckle, grinning to herself, then paused, remembering her mask was off. Not that anyone seemed to notice. Which was fair, they did seem to have better things to do…and she could feel her own eyes wandering somewhat as it started to dawn on her that the men of Fujimi definitely hadn’t retained their clothes during their transformations. The very well-built men of Fujimi…

Then she blinked as someone dropped a cloak on her. She pulled it off her face and gave Bashy a glare, noting the feathers still clinging to parts of his body. Though his was a lot more covered than the other guys, since he actually bothered to put his kimono back on. “Do dress, please. Agent of the empress or no, you’ll catch a cold like that.”

“…Feh. Like she would,” Noriko grumbled, slipping the cloak over herself. She still had some fur covering her modesty, so it was fine. Though…she couldn’t help but notice her hair wasn’t going back to black. It was staying pretty solid white.

Maybe that was something to worry about, but…No, she had bigger things to worry about. Like figuring out where Misha wound up.

“This gal’s gonna be really annoyed if Misha knocked herself out with that divebomb…” she muttered to herself, before heading off to find her wayward friend. And she should probably figure out what happened to the leviathan too. Hopefully this one wouldn’t get away…

All across the country of Gorokiva, similar scenes were playing out.

Everywhere the rain fell, the curse of the Beast began to melt away. Slowly, and not without consequence, but the changes came quickly.

Voices returned first. Some startled, most confused, and some truly jubilant. Then bodies began to grow and shift and return to natural sizes and shapes as a type of calm began to settle over the once maddened populace. Birds in flight touched back down before they began to shift, which Vivian was pretty thankful for.

“Could you imagine if they’d started turning back up in the air?” she muttered to Polina while in the process of chaining up Daigo Rokuhara.

“…Don’t put thoughts like that in my head,” the minotaur replied as she secured his arms.

“Okay, I’ll bring up different thoughts then. Like what do you think happened to the clan of minotaurs? Do they get to be double-bulls now? What does that look like?”

“Technically, their clan symbol is the ox. So it might be enough of a difference? Assumin’ they don’t turn out like Torahiko and become a bigger type of bull.”

“Are oxen bigger?”

“How’m I supposed to know?”

“Didn’t you say your family was made up of farmers?”

Polina gave her a remarkably flat look. “In what land do minotaurs raise cattle?”

“…Riiiiiiight. Hm.” Vivian decided to turn her gaze away from the unconscious dragon–and thank the gods he retained the damage he took during the fight–and glanced towards Hiroto, who was looking more awkward about holding down Nekotani. “Hey Hiro! Any thoughts for what to do once we get these two locked down?”

“Hm? Er, well, returning to the empress sounds like the best course of–” He paused, then glanced over at the sound of crashing lightning. “Ah, Lady Amitiel found another band of rebels.”

“So she did.” 

By this point, Ami’s solution to the problem-causers in the capital had boiled down to “crash down from the sky and stop the fighting”. How she stopped that fighting depended a great deal on how stupid and/or belligerent the fighters in question were. At least one particularly stubborn idiot had taken a trip to the ocean. 

Turns out, fighting people who can lift you up and pitch you across a city is a bad idea. Who knew?

“Alright, that settles it for me.” Vivian stood, brushing her hands off. Not that it helped clear away the water dripping down her armor, but it felt appropriate. “I’ll help clean up. After all, I have to stick by my angel and keep her from getting blown up again.”

“…You’re leavin’ carryin’ Daigo to me, huh?” As usual, Polina was pretty astute.

“Hey, the man’s huge. Besides, you beat him, so you get the spoils.”

“By that logic, I should get to shove the duty off on you-”

“Sorry, I can’t hear you over the rain!” She turned, walking off with a careless wave. “I’ll bring back pants for Hiro!”

“Please and thank you,” Hiro replied. Always so polite, that guy. And not half bad looking as a big tiger man…was that weird?

Vivian considered that for a moment, then shook her head. “I’m over four hundred years old, I’m too old to have these kinds of awakenings anymore…”

As the paladin continued on her way through the stormy capital, similar situations played out all across the country. Not always in the “sudden awakening” sense, though a surprising–or perhaps unsurprising–amount of people did come to similar conclusions about the attractiveness of individuals with animal features.

For the most part though, the country of Gorokiva would remember this moment as a truly strange one to herald the new age. In a way, the curse of the Beast would be fleeting, yet long-lasting in its ramifications.

In Wintery Fuyuno, things had remained mostly peaceful, if confusing. The changes of people to oxen, pigs, and rats came and went, a strange moment in the province that remained the most loyal to the country.

Though in that time of changes, when the rain just began to fall and the people still remained altered, a whistling demon strolled down the streets of Sui, where confused pigs meandered in the watery walkways of their home. Only a few happened to see the dancing umbrella moving towards the local jail, and fewer still saw the outlined figure moving through the chipper breeze.

The plague demon in the jail cell, however, did take notice. And Labatu’s eyes widened as she saw Seeker so very casually poke a hole straight through the charms sealing her prison. 

“Up you get, newbie~” chimed the voice of the demonic demigod, cheery and amused even as the rain washed away the fruits of her clients’ labors, “We still have a few ways to turn a profit here~”

One province over, in Autumny Akino, what fighting remained began to wind down under the pouring rain. In the end, the forces of the Saruta Clan were routed and the Inukai and Himuro stood victorious, though in somewhat awkward positions due to the whole “suddenly transforming into animals” thing.

Quite a few Saruta soldiers chose to stay and surrender rather than go streaking off into the valleys, though the deserters that did were bound to be a problem somewhere down the line. At the moment however, the soldiers of Inukai and Himuro were happy to be alive and victorious.

And then the moment turned somewhat awkward as the soldiers of Inukai went to find their Daimyo, who was entirely naked and pinning down an equally nude Lord Saruta. Both were sweaty, panting, and covered in bite marks and scratches, so when Koyu noticed her soldiers standing there and reacted by going completely red-faced and loudly declaring that it wasn’t what it looked like…well, belief or disbelief lies with the viewer.

As for the lands of Springy Haruno, there wasn’t much to say. The most treacherous province had all three of its Daimyo fully absent while its people were wracked with the animalistic curse, and all three of those Daimyo were now facing arrest in the capital. There was some confusion on how in the world Lord Kogetsu had left a crater in a castle wall, but a certain elfish paladin decided to pick up the weird bunnyman instead of letting him drown in a puddle, so his fate was sealed one way or another.

In the end, there was only one real question left for the Land of Spring: who would claim it once the rain ended.

The lands of Spirited Genkino did okayish. They were just kinda there. Lotta them turned into penguins for some reason, so that was kinda neat. All in all, it was a weird afternoon for them.

Finally, for the lands of Summery Natsuno, the rain came in some ways as a relief. The heat was broken under the deluge, and with it came a sorely needed relief.

Fighting had erupted with the changes in Moku. Serpents struck at the startled forces of Nakazono, whose forms more resembled ponies than true horses. While the Nakazono Clan may have boasted some of the best riders in the country, they definitely weren’t used to being horses themselves, and when Masae Kawajiri decided to sink her fangs into the neck of one captor, well…no one ever accused horses of being particularly brave animals.

So as the rain fell steadily over the steaming springs and yellow plains around the city of Smoke, Nobuhito Nakazono found himself kneeling in the grass, staring at the cloudy sky with a sudden, inescapable certainty that he had truly done wrong. And as he tried to stand, he couldn’t help but see the proof of it, once he realized the ends of his legs had permanently shifted from natural cloven hooves to a more equine shape.

As for Katsuro Rokuhara, the resting dragon felt his lips quirk into a smile as his wife changed back. Then his smile turned to a smirk as he took in her natural body, along with the simple fact that his cute and increasingly red-faced wife hadn’t retained her clothes in said transformation.

And she made quite the cute squeaky noise again when he gave her “tail” a squeeze. “O-Oi…”

“What? My grip moved.” It did, technically. He was holding her steady, and then she started growing, so it’s only natural for his grip to move to keep her steady.

She raised a still-furry eyebrow. Most of her was still pretty furry, though that was shifting slowly as some water dripped from the ceiling. He should probably get that checked later. “To this lady’s ass?”

“What can this guy say? Your booty attracts his hand. Might be a magnetic thing.”

“If that’s supposed to be an ‘animal magnetism’ joke–”

“You two could wait until I left,” Futoshi groused as he pulled on his own discarded clothing, earning another, more embarrassed squeak from Lady Shiho, “Oh, and no physical activity. You’re still injured, boss.”

“Feh. Shouldn’t I get some exercise in?”

“You can cuddle. Be satisfied with that.”

There was some grumbling, but Boss Katsuro seemed happy enough to cuddle instead of potentially reopening his wounds through ill-advised activities, so Futoshi decided to head up and assess the damage. The fact that he could still feel scales and what might be gills along his neck and sides was potentially a bad sign, but he couldn’t be sure…

He did stop and stare once he got to the top of the stairs though. Mostly because there was a deer in the middle of the bar, looking put out. One with a wooden leg, bizarrely enough.

“Oh, hey Mister The Barber.” Oh. “So…any ideas what this is supposed to be?”

“…I’m not sure, Miss Greenfall. I think you should ask your angelic friend.”

The doe sighed. “Yeah, probably should. Well, at least no one’s going to get mad if I go around without clothes for now, right?”

Futoshi felt he should comment on the druid’s priorities. He didn’t, but he felt he should.

She wasn’t wrong though. Few, if any, would comment in the current situation, for few remained unaffected by the sudden curse and the falling rain.

The city of Suna, for its part in everything, was not unaffected. The citizens and members of Clan Isozaki became sheep and goats under the Beast’s influence, and only now was their wool beginning to melt away. For the architect of their misfortune, however, nothing changed at any point, because nothing would.

After all, she carried the blessing of a titan.

The sound of falling rain was always a soothing one to the woman many called Iwa Isozaki. The faint pitter patter, then the rushing drumming, and finally the great crashing of thunder as water cascaded from the sky in droplets so heavy they felt like tiny blows where they landed…

Really, the rain alone was reason enough to want to live above the surface. Never mind divine commandment and manifesting destinies, though yes, those were certainly also factors to keep in mind.

She sighed, leaning back in her lounge chair as she enjoyed a cup of tea. It would be her last one in Gorokiva, so it was best to savor the pleasant yet bittersweet taste.

“Mmm…do you plan to have any, Borzla?” she asked.

Irritated clacking of crabby pincers was her only reply, and that was enough to make the disguised leviathan giggle.

“No need to be so crabby~.” That earned some truly furious clacking. “You’re providing a valuable service here, my dear herald. I was truly curious to know what one of our own would become if they were affected by this beastly curse, and now we know!”

Setting the cup down, the leviathan waited for the clacking to stop. At the tapping of the crab walking away, she reached over and grabbed Borzla by one of her claws, stopping her from leaving. 

“Now now, while I am curious about what would happen if you went out in the rain, the effects would probably end up being too negative to risk.” Smiling, she reached over to grab her tea again. “But worry not, I promise-” 

A sharp pinch to one of her fingers cut her off. 

“…Hm, how rude.” Grabbing the claw pinching her, she easily took it off her finger, before holding the crab by both claws. “Here I am letting you stay in my home and you go and attack me. Honestly, whatever shall I do with you?” 

“Technically this isn’t your home, dear,” spoke the voice of the man called Sanjuro Isozaki, who walked in carrying two long bags. One over his shoulder, the other under his arm, if she was reading his movements right. “We’re just as much owners as she is.” 

“Hm, fair enough.” Setting Borzla down, the leviathan stood up as her disguised partner set the bags down. He opened them and pulled out the two deceased bodies of Iwa Isozaki and Sanjuro, completely preserved despite how long they had since passed away. Or perhaps restored was a better term? 

As he set them down at the table, each slumped as though they’d naturally fallen where they sat, the leviathan who looked nearly identical to the deceased Isozaki pulled out a vial of poison and poured it into the two cups on the table. Not fully; just enough to look like they’d been drunk from. She considered adding more touches, but really, perfection was the enemy of accomplishment, and she had little reason to make a perfect scene, especially since she couldn’t enjoy the meat of such a labor.

“Ah, young love. Do you think they’ll write stories about these two, who chose to end it together when their coup failed?” 

“Neither were particularly young, dear. It would be more akin to old love, wouldn’t it?”

“Mayhaps? Maybe middle-aged love? Though I don’t believe dear Iwa even knew poor Sanjuro here.” She walked to the corpse and patted his head. He had soft, silky hair, which her partner had replicated quite well.

“‘Poor Sanjuro’ was a pirate who died at sea. His life wasn’t well spent.”

“You mean a dashing rogue who swept the lonely daimyo off her feet, don’t you?” She sighed, letting go of the cold head and turning to where she could tell Borzla was still fuming. “You’d think my beloved husband would have a better sense of romance, wouldn’t you?”

Kel moved then, his arm wrapping around her waist as he suddenly dipped her. She allowed it, a grin spreading across her face as she felt the familiar heat of his body, akin to sunshine on a Summer day. “You never complained of my passion before, dear~”

“I did have to be seduced by someone so clumsy, remember? It would be petty to complain of poor passion when someone is trying so adorably hard~” 

Sadly, before they could continue, the insistent clacking of Borzla’s claws began to sound out. 

The leviathan sighed. “Right then, we should be getting on with things. The bodies look right, don’t they?”

“As right as they can get for the long dead.”

“Eight months isn’t too bad…but then we’re not really bothering with the charade by this point, are we?” She chuckled, then leaned up to give Kel a peck on his warm cheek. Which earned more frustrated clacking and bubbling from the table. “Think of it less like a perfect deception, and more like a few props being left for a proper conclusion. Besides, won’t the mystery be enticing for the unknowing?”

She could tell he was smirking. The amusement was in his voice. “Ah yes, the difficult mystery of figuring out how the Daimyo and her husband died. Clearly the leviathans present in the country had nothing to do with it.”

The leviathan in question huffed, lightly slapping his chest. “Don’t be clever with me.” She tapped his nose. “Men are better strong and silent.”

“But then I can’t sing your praises, my dear~”

“Uuuuuugh, would you two-Eh?” Oh? Well that was curious.

The leviathan pulled away from her partner and moved over to Borzla, who was still atop the table, but felt different. Bigger, certainly, and the air felt…wetter around her–The leviathan raised a hand and caught a raindrop as it fell from the ceiling.

“Hm…Kelveza, is there a leak in the ceiling?”

“Not one that I see.” She heard the rush of his wings as the air heated, and his voice came from above her. “No, there’s no cracks. But–Ah, some rain just–”

She caught the second drop of divine-tinged water, then chuckled and pressed her wet palm to Borzla’s shell. “It does make sense, I suppose. Why would a simple domicile stop the blessings of a god from reaching the afflicted? But is this the doing of the Storm’s Son alone, or did The Usurper lend her aid, I wonder?”

“Does it matter?” Borzla complained, before yelping as she was lifted, “A-Ah! W-Wait, p-please, p-put me d-Oh.” She blinked as she was set down on the floor, then let out a shaky sigh and tried to bow as much as she was able to. “Thank you, oh holy Listener.”

“No need to thank me, I was doing it for practicality, not generosity. You’re already growing bigger, so the chances of you wrecking the table were too high.” The Listener of the Prophet’s Divine Word waved a casual hand. “It’s a shame too, I always did prefer crabs.”

“…e-eh?” Oh that was cute. There was some genuine terror there.

“Yes, they make quite delightful pets. Something about their hard shells just appeals to me. The texture, mayhaps?”

“O-Oh. Ah, yes, that’s…good to know?”

“I’m fond of hierophant crabs in particular, if you’re thinking of getting me a gift in the future. And that’s hierophant, not hermit. Those can be adorable too, but there are some differences–”

“I think she was afraid you wanted to eat her,” Kel deadpanned, touching down behind her and eliciting another fearful squeak from the noble Herald of the Prophet.

“Was it not obvious I knew that? Even if she weren’t a herald, I’m not a cannibal. I prefer shrimp, anyhow. The little carrion feeders especially, the ones that get fat on corpse meat.” She let her smile show her natural, needle-esque teeth as her features started to sharpen back to their natural shape.

“Yes, you’ve mentioned before. The shipwreck shrimps, right?” She felt Kel’s hands in her bunched up tendrils, slowly disentangling them from the puffy curls they’d mimicked for months now. It felt longer, in these warm lands. Her tentacles leaned into his touch, and she curled a few in his palms, enjoying the warmth he gave off. 

“Those in particular, yes, though all of them tend to eat from the dead. Plentiful little foragers, they are, one and all. I suppose I will miss the more shallow meats though.”

“You don’t have to return to the sea just yet, right? There’s plenty more you could do in these ‘shallow lands’.”

She chuckled. His breath was warm on the nape of her neck. “There is…but responsibilities outweigh desires, my dear husband. The sea calls me back, to report to my prophet if nothing else.”

“But I’m a man of the land, not the sea. I can’t follow you down there.”

“You’re a man of the sky, if anything. Or the sun?”

“Maybe the Sun Lands?” She could hear the cheek in his voice, and when one of her tendrils slightly papped his face, she could feel the smirk there.

“Shush. How is Borzla doing? I don’t hear any bone snapping this time.”

“She’s turning back, slowly. It does look more gentle this time, Mori-”

“Ah ah, no saying names. Listener is my title–”

He hugged her then, his embrace warm. Better than the near hellish heat he’d given off on their first meeting. “But I want to say it~ Shouldn’t I have that privilege?”

“Mayhaps. Though do adjust your grip. You’re squeezing the fat sacks again.”

He snorted, breathing hot air on her tentacles. “They’re called breasts.”

“They’re called useless.” She sighed, unbinding the obi around her waist. “If Borzla’s turning back, then the shallowfolk are too. We should get moving.”

She pulled away from his embrace and silenced his protest by dropping the layers of clothing her false position demanded of her. She still wore a shift and bloomers underneath, but she could feel his eyes roaming as she continued to change. The somewhat roomy garments hung more loosely as she let the fat melt into smooth muscle, each step towards her wardrobe accompanied by an inch in height until she stood far taller than before.

“…Can’t you shift your clothing with magic?” Kel asked, his eyes still lingering low, as though hoping for the rest to slip right off.

“Yes, but that wouldn’t tease you nearly as much. Borzi’s even less dressed, as you can see.”

“She’s not my beautiful partner. Duolmez, you don’t need help dressing, do you?”

“W-Why would I?” Borzla grumbled. From the feel of it, she was standing more steadily, her distinctly crabby scent starting to shift to a more natural leviathanic aroma. Though the crab was still there, if the Listener paid attention.

“Because you need to wear something while we make our way out of this shallow country,” the Listener replied, “So do dress appropriately. Maybe as a maid? A handmaiden of some type, certainly.”

Kel perked up. “Oh? Are we playing noble sunlanders again, my dear?”

“Mayhaps. Do remind me, what does my natural pigment look like again?”

“Yellow, dear. Yellow with speckles of deep blue so dark it looks black. Like specks of midnight against sunflowers.”

She chuckled as she relaxed, letting the change in pigment take place. It felt almost like ruining work, with how long it had taken to get it right, but the absence of its tension was nice. “So not a natural shallowlander skin tone then.”

“…Maybe not. There are probably some species out there–”

“Not a natural Sunlander coloration, then.”

She could tell he was pouting. “…It would look good with blue.”

“How fascinating. Pick out which ones are blue then, if you would.”

And now he smiled, moving easily past her to gather the appropriate garments. He was shorter than her now, and part of her felt she may miss being short and chubby. But then, it was just another face, and all faces were masks in the end.

So she relaxed further, and let the colors of her eyes fade away. She couldn’t even remember what they were supposed to be by this point, but Kel told her they looked perfect, so there was a sadness in that too.

“Ah, so…” Borzla’s timid voice came, and from the sound, she was near to her natural shape. The bipedal, humanoid shape, at the very least, not her truest form. Even if that form was somewhat diminutive compared to other leviathans. “Are the demons going to be getting Kozloi?”

“No, likely not.”

“Huh? Wait, really? We’re leaving her?”

“Is there a problem with that?”

She waved her hands, confirming she did indeed have those back. “No no nope! No problem here! I-I’m just…why is she being left behind?”

“Why would we be expending resources to get her back? She knew her role and the consequences that may come of it, same as you.”

“…But I’m coming with you?”

“Yes, because you escaped on your own. She’ll be welcomed back, if she escapes to return to us. She’ll be left if not, same as you. Escape, death, victory, defeat; these are fates that lie with the Heralds of the Deep. You escaped twice, despite failing twice. I won’t deprive you of your earned fate, and neither shall I do the same for Kozloi.”

“Banguani screwed up, so she has to deal with it,” Kel added, still rummaging. She was pretty sure he was picking out a full outfit now and some amusement bubbled up at the thought of what he might decide on.

“Oh. Yeah, that makes sense…” Borzla mumbled, still undressed. So the Listener reached over her partner, snatched a sundress, and pitched it at the herald.

Her yelp helped a smile spread across the Listener’s face. “Just as yours are, her efforts are still appreciated. Your influence in Sollamava started at least a partial civil war, even if you failed. Less easy to overlook is your failure with the shop, but that can be handled later.” She ignored the whimper in favor of continuing. “It wasn’t enough, but Kozloi did her best. It just wasn’t a good plan.”

“I-It wasn’t?”

“A plot that can be solved in a single day is not a good one. Using the Beast to change a country was smart, but it called too much attention.” She spread her arms and raised her tentacles, as though to encompass the country she stood in. “Mortal affairs are mortal. Divine affairs are divine.”

“Redundancy is redundant.”

The Listener quite maturely stuck her tongue out at her partner and gave the back of his neck a lick, earning a satisfyingly startled noise, then continued. “A curse to cover a country is a cute idea. It called down the will of the divine though. To push the limits of what we can do means it has worth as an experiment. It did not destroy this nation though, nor did it give us reign over its people. If it were more permanent, maybe it would have been worth it. It isn’t, because it didn’t. Simple, don’t you think?”

“…Y-Yeah? I think.” Borzla didn’t sound certain, but that wasn’t an issue.

“To sum it up, it wasn’t worth the effort, but it was fun. The nation will recover and now we know what not to try. Courses can be corrected where subtler means are needed. You still have a role to play too, so don’t worry. You still have value.”

“Er…thank you, oh holy Lis-”

“But I will take it out of your hide if you cost us over a thousand cor in demonic materials again.”

She stiffened. “R-Right! U-Understood!”

The Listener nodded, not really towards her, then crossed her arms over her chest. “It shouldn’t take this long to pick out an outfit, Kel.”

“Don’t worry, I found an appropriate one!” His smile was audible in his voice as he handed over–


“Yes dear?”

“I see you picked one of the cheongsam.”

“Cheongsam, qipao, don’t you think it’s a decent dress?”

“It has a hole in the chest.” She felt the material. “And there are slits along the hips..”

“It’s a traditional garment.” Far too much amusement in his voice there. “Maybe a modified one.”

“I can tell. Are these strings binding the front and back together? Is it completely open at the sides?”

“Not completely. You did just say it was bound together there.”

“Cheeky. You would have me show the whole world my undergarments?”

“You could solve that by removing those overbearing undergarments.”

Borzla sighed. “Aren’t we supposed to be leaving before the sheep people bother to check in? We can’t just–”

And as if on cue, the door was slammed open. “Lady Isozaki! Are you–…”

The Listener sighed. “You have a point. We were dawdling for too long.” She smiled over at the man in the door, listening close as his heart began to beat faster and louder, his breath coming quickly as every sight in front of him began to sink in. “Oh, I remember you. Furukawa, the one who brought the nice tea leaves. You were quite helpful in hiring those Blue Scale people, thank you.”

“W-What–” There was a gasp, then a slide of steel. It rattled, as though being drawn from a hastily worn scabbard that wasn’t quite in its right place. “What did you do to Lady Isozaki!?”

“I offered her a better life. Lightlanders reincarnate, don’t you? I made sure to obtain permission, before I upheld my bargain.” She smiled, placing a hand on her chest in a show of sincerity. “Take it from a holy woman, I’m sure her new life is happier.”

He gulped, audibly, then turned as Borzla spoke in a far colder tone. “He saw too much.”

The Listener smiled. Borzla may be a runt, in literal terms, but she had the correct spirit. “He did. Young men shouldn’t be peeking in on women changing. Though the fifties isn’t young for humans, is it? So you really should know better.”

“Y-You…H–” He turned, about to shout, and Kel’s hand was around his mouth, pulling him into the room as the doors slammed shut.

“Thank you, dear.” The Listener’s smile widened as Furukawa struggled, then began to thrash, no noise echoing from his covered mouth as his heart beat louder and louder. “Could you handle him?”

“Of course.” She could feel his smile as he looked back, bright and warm. “Anything for you, dear~”

“Thank you. We want the room to look right, so don’t leave too much of a mess.”

She felt the heat and the woosh of air. The smell of ash would cling to the room, but that was fine. 

The rain could wash it all away.

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